- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- With suspensions and injuries damaging Georgia’s defensive depth, perhaps it is no surprise that the Bulldogs have started slowly on defense in two games thus far.
Senior defensive back Sanders Commings -- who along with outside linebacker Chase Vasser missed the first two games on suspension -- said the absences of key players produced the majority of the early busted assignments. Although Commings and Vasser returned for last Saturday’s game against Florida Atlantic, the Bulldogs were still without suspended All-America safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alec Ogletree.
That, Commings said, is part of the reason opponents have already scored three touchdowns of 40-plus yards in three games, where the Bulldogs’ stout 2011 defense allowed only two touchdowns of that length in 14 games.
Further, they have already allowed 11 plays that covered 25 yards or more -- five to Buffalo and three each to Missouri and Florida Atlantic.
“Us missing a couple guys could have a lot to do with it. Two guys who aren’t back yet, Rambo and Ogletree, they’re definitely top guys on our defense,” Commings said. “The other part, too, is the first quarter we’re just struggling -- the first half, really. We need to just come out and execute our game plan. It’s not like teams are just overpowering us or out-physicaling us. It’s just that we’re blowing assignments or not fitting in a gap.”
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham agreed with Commings’ assessment, noting that substituting less experienced players for veterans can lead to communication breakdowns that produce big plays.
“I think anytime you’ve got guys that are doing things for the first time or there’s some newness to it, you can get some inconsistencies that can allow things like that to happen because big plays occur when there are seams or there’s a breakdown somewhere,” Grantham said.
The good news for the Bulldogs is that they tend to improve as the game progresses. Georgia outscored Buffalo 21-7, Missouri 32-10 and Florida Atlantic 28-6 in the second half, showing an ability to adjust on the fly. Now it’s a matter of avoiding the overaggressiveness and communication breakdowns that’s produced some of the first-half mistakes.
“Early in the game, it’s real easy to be so hungry to make a play that you react too fast or something or somebody runs a double move or you try to make a tackle and you jump out of your gap to go make it and they hit a seam,” Commings said.
“I think in the second half we just learned to do our job and that’s why we’ve been shutting teams out. I think if we play that way the whole game, I think we’ll be lights out on defense.”
Jones’ draft status: ESPN draft experts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay both moved outside linebacker Jarvis Jones up to the No. 1 spot on their list of the top prospects for the 2013 NFL draft class this week.
Many draft experts rated Jones as a possible first-round pick during his standout 2011 season -- when he led the SEC with 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore -- but he announced midway through the season that he would return for 2012 and held firm on that commitment.
He hasn’t made any such guarantees this season and Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said he will be happy for Jones if Kiper and McShay’s prediction comes to pass, even if he leaves school early.
“I’d be excited for Jarvis to get drafted that high. It’s just a matter of when,” Richt said. “But when that day comes, I’ll be the first one to be genuinely thrilled for him.”
Jones said after Tuesday’s practice that he will play against Vanderbilt after missing last Saturday’s game against Florida Atlantic with a groin strain, but Richt was not as quick to make any guarantees on Wednesday.
“I’m hoping he’ll feel healthy enough to go,” Richt said. “I’m not 100 percent sure he will be.”
Dawson’s role: True freshman outside linebacker Josh Dawson enjoyed his most extensive playing time against Florida Atlantic -- finishing with two tackles, 1.5 for a loss -- because senior Cornelius Washington’s injured hamstring was not fully healed.
Dawson had impressed Grantham to the point that he was next in line to take over some of Washington’s snaps as an outside linebacker and nickel defensive end. Dawson and fellow true freshman Jordan Jenkins and Vasser worked into a three-man rotation in Washington’s absence.
“He was the next guy and we felt like we needed to give Cornelius a blow. I think Cornelius played about 13 plays in the game,” Grantham said. “At that time, just watching the way the game was going, I felt like Josh and Jordan and Chase would be fine. We kind of got in a rotation with those three guys and I think Josh did a good job.”
Considering that he had two true freshmen playing defensive end at points, Grantham was fairly pleased with their performances and now feels more confident about playing Dawson after seeing how he acquitted himself in an actual game.
“I think anytime they get to go play and you get to watch them and you can kind of see some things that they can do and some things that they need to work on, I think that makes you feel better,” Grantham said.
Injury update: Richt said starting left guard Dallas Lee was able to participate in some of Wednesday’s practice during scout team work after leaving in the second quarter of the FAU game with a sprained ankle.
“He practiced against the scouts today and he looked pretty good,” Richt said. “I would guess there’s a good chance of him playing, but it’s not guaranteed. I think you’d have to measure a gimpy Lee compared to a healthy Beard.
“Even if he’s given the OK to go, he still may not start or if he starts, we may rotate more than normal because Beard played good enough to prove that he can get in there. So we may rotate around and take some pressure off that ankle.”
Also in green non-contact jerseys on Wednesday: Dawson (shoulder sprain), outside linebacker James DeLoach (brachial plexus), offensive lineman Watts Dantzler (ankle sprain) and snapper Nathan Theus (shoulder sprain).
Receiver Rantavious Wooten (knee contusion) and Jones (groin strain) were listed as limited on the Bulldogs’ injury report.